Long before artisan coffee shops, vintage boutiques and curry houses populated Brick Lane, the area was home to a large Jewish community who arrived in Spitalfields in the late 19th century. Gradually, the community dispersed to north London but the beigel shops remain. Beigel Bake (the white one) and the Beigel Shop (the yellow one) are two of the last reminders of a time when the street signs were written in Yiddish, the mosque was a Synagogue and kosher butchers and restaurants were in abundance. Over the years these bakeries have become a popular 24-hour source of doughy satisfaction, but how much do you know about Beigel Bake — arguably the more famous (and better tasting) of the two?
Why is it spelled beigel, not bagel?
First things first: pronunciation. While bagel is widely used in the UK, it is often seen as an Americanisation. The word bagel entered the English language from Yiddish and possibly stems from the German word, buegel, which means stirrup, because of the similarity in shape. According to Gil Marks, author of The World of Jewish Cooking, the term may also come from bougal, a German word for ring or beigen, a Yiddish word for bend. Local poet and frequent beigel eater Tim Wells says, "you can tell who's a nebbische 'cause they say bagel, not beigel". So if you want to get the lingo right, the 'ei' in beigel should be pronounced like the 'ei' in 'Einstein'.
Beigel Bake Vs The Beigel Shop
Although widely seen as rivals, the two shops were originally owned by the same family. Brothers Asher and Sammy Cohen started off working for another brother at The Beigel Shop next door, but eventually branched out to 159 Brick Lane in 1976. When the brothers aren't putting in a shift, Nathan Cohen, one of two sons can be seen overseeing the sale and production of the 2,000-3,000 beigels baked in-house every day.
The general consensus is that the Beigel Bake wins out in any taste comparisons. If in doubt, see rapper and chef Action Bronson give his verdict in the video below, or just arrive hungry and sample both yourself, though we'd be tempted just to join the shorter queue.
Beigel Bake gets through 15-20,000 brown bags in a single week
Between 6pm and 1am, five bakers work tirelessly to produce 2-3,000 beigels every day. These are boiled, baked, cooled, sliced and filled before being sold to a regular stream of hungry customers in brown paper bags. The bags are supplied by Gardners Bags, established in 1870, it's Spitalfields' oldest family business. Paul Gardner is a fourth generation bag-seller who has been delivering 15-20,000 bags to Beigel Bake at 6am sharp on a Monday morning for the last six years. He took over from Jack Bott, a bag seller who had originally served the family until his death at 82.
The menu hasn't changed but tastes have
Debbie Shutter's 1992 short film Beigels Already (below) demonstrates how taste has evolved. Back then salmon and cream cheese seemed to be the order of the day, now the deliciously succulent salt beef (with pickle and a liberal dollop of hot mustard) is the firm favourite (if social media is anything to go by) — though poet Wells still goes in for chopped herring.
FYI asking for gluten free varieties will probably provoke a disparaging scowl from the ladies behind the counter. And the bakery refused to break with tradition to produce those rainbow-coloured bagels unlike its competitors at The Beigel Shop.
Boiling the beigel gives it that distinctive chewiness
An authentic beigel should give your jaw muscles a good work out. As defined by Marks in The World of Jewish Food: "The bagel's uniqueness comes from being boiled in water before baking, a step that produces its crisp crust and moist, chewy interior."
The beigels used to be crafted by hand
The beigel's used to be made by hand until machinery was introduced. At the far end of the bakery, a large dough-making machine mixes the ingredients for the beigels, pastries and cakes on the menu and another splits the dough into beigel-shaped balls. The beigels are boiled in hot water, before being cooled in a mesh basket, and then arranged neatly onto narrow wet, wooden planks named 'shebas', wood is used instead of metal so the bakers don't burn their hands.
There's even a beigel running group
Although the website needs updating, Advent Running group meet on Friday mornings at Beigel Bake for a weekly #beigelrun, so you don't need to feel guilty about gobbling up that extra thick layer of cream cheese for breakfast. Check their Twitter page @adventrunning for updates on their next run.
From the Kray Twins to the Fonz — celeb spotting at Beigel Bake
It's not just a magnet for locals, trendy students, rowdy drunks and tired cabbies you know. The bakery is also a popular celebrity haunt.
It's been said that "those villains" the Kray Twins regularly frequented the establishment, according to a couple of East End blokes interviewed in the 1990s while munching on beigels in the back of a cab. However, it's more likely they were locked up before Beigel Bake opened unless they visited next door which has been there longer. In the same video where that interview appeared (below) see if you can spot bohemian artist and hedonist Molly Parkin in her distinctive headwear. Beigel Bake manager Sammy Minzly told the gentle author that his favourite celeb customer was Henry Winkler, aka The Fonz. On a trip in her teens, your author had to stifle her excitement at queueing alongside Matthew Horn, of Gavin and Stacey fame.
The beauty of this east London institution is it's a great leveller, serving up beigels at all hours to everyone regardless of where you were born and how much money you earn. At 30p a beigel and £1.80 for salmon and cream cheese, the price hasn't rocketed since the 1970s like we imagine the rent probably has.
Beigels Already (1992) by Debbie Shutter as originally posted by The Gentle Author.